Training Through Depression and Other Conditions

By Andrew Levings
July 2016

Depression and other similar conditions are one of the most misunderstood and maligned condition(s) in the world today. There is an epidemic of such conditions, especially in young males.

One of the key issues is that there is so much pressure, both societal and peer-based, on young men to 'act tough', 'man up' and generally try to hide such conditions. One of the silver linings to training, whether it be cardiovascular based, strength based or sport based, is that it can be a fantastic tool in overcoming such conditions; dealing with both the physical and mental side of things.

The 'Magic' of Exercise in Overcoming Depression
I am convinced through personal experience, anecdotal evidence and recent scientific study, that exercise is a magic 'cure' for depression. I use the word 'cure' with trepidation as such a word usually denotes that something won't come back. You can't guarantee this with anything in life, and everyone is different.

I love science and continually research evidence-based papers on anything strength and conditioning related. Latest science (through PubMed) has confirmed that many scientists believe that raising the heart rate improves mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, social anxiety and even obsessive-compulsive type conditions. A lot of current thought has suggested that this is because exercise raises the heart rate which, in turn, releases endorphins (such as the 'runner's high). This is why people may often say they are 'addicted' to running.

However, I think this line of thought doesn't cover the full story. What about those of us that do no cardio yet still feel amazing after a hard training session? Or those that do classes or practices such as yoga, Pilates or simply walking the dog regularly? In my opinion, and this is purely from an experiential or empirical viewpoint, rather than a formally educated scientific stance, exercise brings the following benefits which, to me, are 'magic' in keeping a healthy mind and thus a healthy body:

'as long as you are both physically and mentally healthy, you can achieve anything'

1) Exercise Brings Routine
Speak to any mental health professional and the first thing they will say is things like 'do you have a regular sleep pattern?', 'Tell me your average day?', or even 'How much exercise do you get?' What they are trying to ascertain is basically 'Do you have a routine?' This is something people who train definitely have and is something that many of us are experts in. It was bodybuilders who came up with pre-, intra- and post nutrition around (or 'peri') workouts. It was bodybuilders who first understood the importance of amino acids during training, from literally eating BCAA capsules during hard sessions, to importing highly advanced and patented carbohydrate sources such as highly branched chain cyclic dextrin (HBCD) from Japan.

What I'm trying to get at here is that training gives routine. Everyone plans their workouts or has some idea of what they're going to do before they hit the gym, whether be that which body parts or what they want to focus on that day if they train instinctively (and most people do that to a certain degree, especially when getting more advanced). Routine gets you up in the morning, into bed at a regular time and eating a specific diet that many qualified nutritional experts may understand, even without considering supplementation protocols. Routine is good. We may not always like it, but it's probably good for us.

2) Exercise Gives an Outlet
Training gives an outlet, both physically and mentally. Many people now talk about 'mindfulness', which is basically thinking about what you're doing! In the gym we are always thinking about what we're doing and to a certain degree blocking out the things around us, whether that be personal issues like work or relationships, to other people training next to us. Training is a bit like revving a car; and your body is a machine: you need to turn it over on a regular basis or it will go stale and eventually seize working how you want it to.

3) Exercise is Social
It may seem obvious or even contradictory to what I've said above, but training can be whatever you want it to be. Some people may have loads of mates or a big active social circle and just go to the gym to keep in shape; that's great! For others, their life is the gym, and the mates they make down the gym or sports club are their friends for life. I once read that someone studying a Psychology Post-Graduate degree commented that their lecturer said the best thing you can do to help someone who is depressed is to get them doing something different, exciting and highly sociable a couple of times a week. I think something like Zumba is amazing for some people, as it just does that.

4) The More you Train the Better you Look and thus Feel
Like it or not, we live in a society where looks are a commodity and training is the only (real) way to buy this. In essence, the more you train, the closer you will be to attaining your goals. The closer you get to your goals, the closer you get to what you want, and generally when we get what we want we're happy, or at least happier. Furthermore, I believe training or physical exercise has a 'magic' element to it as success can't be bought or borrowed and certainly isn't dependant on anything like what job you have, what degree you have or don't have and so on. You can pay nothing for good training and still reap the rewards; simply walking or walking with a huge backpack on, sprinting upstairs, doing marathon sessions of callisthenics. All free or very low cost; all 100% accessible.

Training Tips for when coming back from a Layoff (especially time off due to depression)

1) Start gently
Don't expect to go from 0-10 hours training a week. Start low; for example, 20 mins each day doing an activity you really enjoy. For example, if you like training arms, why not just do a handful of bicep/tricep/forearm giant sets a day? If you start with low expectations you can over-deliver results to yourself. This will make it easier to start getting back to where you want to be.

2) Have a Plan!
Write a plan: what's the goal for today, this week, this month, the next three months and so on. I always find micro (small) goals better: for me, thinking about what will happen in a year's time can sometimes be off-putting and even discouraging.

Have SMART goals:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-Dependant

3) Mix cardio, weights and sport
Why not cover all the basis prior to weights? Weights if this is what you enjoy; sports for the social aspect and maybe re-kindling an old passion, whether it be hitting the heavy bag, playing five-a-side football or maybe even a game of rugby. You are never too old or young for sport; and like books there's one for everybody!

Exercise is an excellent and low-cost way of getting back on track, or simply where you want to be. Train hard and you will keep healthy: and as was aforementioned, you will be able to achieve anything. I hope this helps at least one person. Thanks to those who've helped me.